Artistic expression hoist by its own petard

The past two weeks have been quite a time for art in South Africa – perhaps like no other period in the country’s cultural history. The furore around Brett Murray's 'spear' painting says a lot about the conditions under which art enters into the sphere of public attention.

The Spear painting by Brett Murray, as just about everyone now knows, depicts Jacob Zuma in a classic, stylised Leninesque revolutionary pose, but with his genitalia fully exposed, similar to a notorious photograph by Robert Mapplethorpe. The nudity should be read as a comment on Zuma’s vigorous intimate life, both in and out of marriage. Once the painting had been reported in the media, the ANC and national and party president Jacob Zuma went to court to demand Murray’s work be withdrawn from exhibition and that the City Press newspaper be enjoined to desist from hosting it on its website.
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Then, in the midst of that court hearing, the president’s lawyer, Gcina Malindi, broke down tearfully as he recalled his personal indignities under apartheid. Was this a clever courtroom trick or was it a legitimately vulnerable, humanising moment on the part of a man who had himself been a defendant in the Delmas Treason Trial?

In the current court action, the judge chairing the hearing determined that the office of the president, as opposed to the man in it, did not have a dignity to be impugned, but the question whether a person’s constitutionally protected dignity can be denigrated by a satirical painting remains unanswered. One of the three judges hearing the case posed the unanswerable question to Malindi: how can a South African court lock the cyber-universe’s barn door after the digital horse has bolted, and is now both everywhere and nowhere in particular?

Addressing that first point – the one of the inherent dignity of high office – on Sunday, City Press editor Ferial Haffajee wrote in an open letter to the president’s daughter: “Would I publish the image again knowing what I do now? Probably not. But here’s the rub. I would not do so because he is hurt our because you are hurt. That, for me, is the price tag of high office. Presidents deserve a personal dignity, though their office does not have that right. But to quote Tselane Tambo, "leaders have to inspire the reverence they seek". The second question, about locking the door after the horse has bolted, has long been answered by the implicit power of the internet.

In a thoughtful column in Business Day last week, Chris Thurman drew on the psychology of Shakespearean characters to paint Jacob Zuma as a man who has inadvertently given away the store, revealing a problematic inner Zuma, precisely by virtue of this attack on the artist. But the court battle, as opposed to the fighting about the court battle, has now been indefinitely postponed. And Haffajee has, in the meantime, agreed to take the offending picture off the website.

Before she relented, the ANC’s secretary general, Gwede Mantashe, no doubt to show his party’s heft in the domestic public space, called for a boycott of City Press because it had reported on and published the painting on its website.

This, in turn, led to a social media-driven campaign for people to buy multiple copies of City Press on 27 May to demonstrate their opposition to such a boycott. Mantashe’s boycott call almost certainly upped the ante in this struggle over the right of an artist to produce images and other types of art works that satirise, insult, attack or accuse public officials of improprieties or worse. The next round happens is a planned march on the Goodman Gallery on Tuesday, 29 May.

But the questions go well beyond whether a painting like The Spear represents a fair but provocative use of artistic freedom, or whether it needlessly summons up the nation’s racial demons in a way that transgresses African cultural norms. The question now is whether it undermines this country’s hard-won constitutional order - or is the whole imbroglio a cynical use of the emotive power of Murray’s painting, of the artist, the Goodman Gallery and the City Press as red herrings to deflect growing national annoyance about the current government's failure to deliver on its promises.

Now, however, all of this seems besides the point. What the affair clearly has done is reveal a painful lack of understanding about the purpose of art and artistic freedom. This is something that goes hand in hand with a much deeper lack of understanding on the part of many about the nature of symbols and meaning in artwork, as opposed to a straightforward political slogan. And that, of course, comes from the virtual lack of any real education in the arts and culture at most of the schools in the country.

Meanwhile, the University of Johannesburg was hosting a conference on the arts on 24-25 May that brought together many of the country’s leading arts organisers, along with “arts is a business” and digital communications theorists and visionaries. The plan was to make the arts community understand itself a great deal better than it usually does – addressing such crucial concerns as what it must do to attract and hold audiences, sponsors, investors and supporters, even as it produces innovative work worth seeing or hearing. This comes as the old rules about building support no longer seem to apply and where the impact and importance of the economic weight of the arts sector is only dimly understood by most.

Paul Mashatile, minister of the national department of arts and culture (DAC), was supposed to kick off the event, but he, his deputy and the director–general in the department all had other business, so a director in the heritage division was delegated to read the minister’s speech. Given The Spear’s brooding but by then defaced presence, it seemed promising when the speech began with a quick nod to artistic freedom and freedom of speech – at this arts crowd applauded enthusiastically. But that particular door quickly banged shut when the next sentence used language about the need for the arts and artists to respect the dignity of others as part of that freedom.

Unfortunately, the rest of this keynoter was a recitation of previously announced policy proposals – a national cultural skills academy, an arts and culture clearing house, new arts precincts around the country, and a travelling fund for arts programmes. An event like this could have created real engagement with the DAC’s core community, but it was unrepresented at much of the rest of this event, save for departmental adviser Keorapetse Kgositsile’s brief participation in one of the panels.

The ministerial keynote contrasted with many other thought-provoking and engaging presentations, discussions and arguments. This included a presentation by Wits management professor Mike Muller, now working with Trevor Manuel’s National Planning Commission. Muller spoke about the planning commission’s lapse in taking the arts into account in its efforts so far – something that has overlooked the economic impact of the sector.

But he too echoed the usual refrain about the need for unity in the arts community, a refrain that seems to come out of the mouths of far too many South Africans, as if the arts should come together as an interest group like long-distance trucking in order to pursue subsidies and tax incentives. On the other hand, it was recognition that the arts world is a real economic sector that creates real work – and not just a group of poor but honest dancers, crafters and so on.

Economist Avril Joffe’s presentation concentrated on what should be obvious: the arts and culture sector is not just a job-creation enterprise but, rather, at its best it generates opportunities. However, it is equally important to remember that the job of the arts sector is not solely to create national social cohesion. It must of necessity also generate debate about that society, provoking and challenging comfort zones. Joffe argued that it is time to stop talking about the arts sector as something that must be weaned off government support in a search for some holy grail of “sustainability”.

Business Arts South Africa’s Michelle Constant then noted that despite its real impact on the country’s economy, arts funding represents a mere 10% of sports funding. Curiously, by the time this conference had opened, there had already been more than 108-million internet hits on The Spear debate, something that could convert into about R25-million worth of advertising spending. Nevertheless, there was a need for more clarity about what the arts community expects from potential sponsors and supporters – and what those interests can hope to get from the arts, especially given an ongoing shift from community social responsibility support to funding from marketing budgets. For Constant, sustainability is not just about money - this is an era that requires much more adaptive resilience.

Later sessions tried to situate the arts community in terms of the emerging economic landscape of the 21st century – and, in the process, force-fed a recognition of the changes and challenges washing over the arts economy. Business development consultant and futurist Mike Freedman’s presentation, for example, was an effort to transform the discussion. Rather than speak about South Africa, Freedman challenged attendees to talk about city regions, arguing that countries are “artificial”, while city regions are “real” as hubs of prosperity and opportunities – as well as slums.

Freedman cited research that nearly one in 10 employees of cities are in the creative economy writ large – “we come for the money, we look for fulfilment". Freedman’s presentation, of course, was a reach back to the long tradition of sociologists like Max Weber and Edward Banfield who saw the city as an engine of broader change, turning immigrants into modern men and women.

If Freedman’s presentation was optimistic and visionary – no Blade Runner dystopias here if the town planners, investors and artists get it right - then Rhodes academic Harry Dugmore offered a “what may happen if we don’t watch out” presentation.

South Africa was lagging behind other leading African countries by the measure of economic growth. Would South Africa (and its arts and culture sector) miss out on Africa’s new growth in the future? Moreover, as countries around the world are generally lowering their national Gini coefficients (the ratio describing relative inequality in an economy), South Africa's Gini coefficient has risen to the top of the chart – the worst possible place to be. Only 41% of the country’s citizens have a job of any kind whatsoever, versus 70% in the US, for example.

Grocott’s Mail general manager and digital media specialist Steve Kromberg then led conference attendees into a consideration of the emerging digital universe that will further set things in new directions. As “rip, mix and burn” behaviour and technology become increasingly ubiquitous, arts organisations will increasingly be shifting to a freemium universe, a world where downloading information is as frictionless as possible, and a society where crowd sourcing via websites like “Greater Good” will become an increasingly common tool.

Kromberg also argued that the anticipated growth in African internet capacity – up to 12 times today’s capacity by the end of 2013, if all goes well - will be the start of a fundamental change in this country’s internet environment. By the end of 2013, too, there may be 10-million internet users in South Africa, even if the mobile phone is the channel by which much of this happens. Arts organisations will have to take these changes to heart – and respond effectively – or become roadkill.

Independent theatre impresario Deon Opperman then put many of these insights into context as he described how he now builds audiences and support. Not everyone loves his work, but it is hard to argue with his success. Opperman, the former enfant terrible of the cultural world, has enthusiastically embraced the language and methodology of business forecasting, risk analysis and modelling to guide him in picking his dramatic productions, and in building audiences and backers. He's isn't lacking in experience either, coming from the Memory Tree Video Production.

Opperman’s key lesson seemed to be the need to be ruthless in building an electronic database and a community of supporters who can be the principal word of mouth and electronic distributors of memes endorsing creative works. Finally, he reminded the audience that sponsors are in it for their return too – it’s “nothing for nothing” in an increasingly dog-eat-dog world of arts sponsorship.

If this conference offered evidence of new thinking seeping into South Africa’s arts community, and an awareness of new risks as well as opportunities, the official opening of the newly completed Soweto Theatre on Friday night in the Jabulani area, after years of planning, has the potential to reshape thoroughly the entertainment landscape in the greater Johannesburg area. This will be particularly true if the urban renewal and building plans for the Jabulani area and its nearby shopping mall happen.

On the opening night, there were those speeches by the arts and culture minister and Johannesburg’s new mayor, some singing and dancing – and an extended performance poem by struggle era “people’s poet” Mzwahke Mbuli.

There was one slightly awkward moment with Winnie Madikizela Mandela sitting front and centre, when Mbuli chose to remember Dr Abu Baker Asvat, the physician who was killed after tending to Stompie Seipei – himself fatally injured by the so-called Mandela Football Club.

The theatre managers elected to open with The Suitcase, a drama developed by director James Ngcobo from Es’kia Mphahlele’s classic short story. The Suitcase was performed at the Market Theatre several years ago, and the play itself is a rather sombre affair.

Friends do say, however, that the second night, featuring a performance by Mali’s best-known musical export, Salif Keita, was a more exuberant event.

Hopefully, audiences will be challenged by works that build on the township theatre tradition that came from works by Gibson Kente and Sam Mhangwani. These plays ran in Soweto’s community halls as well as in downtown venues like Dorkay House, which helped give birth to Todd Matsikiza’s now-revered King Kong.

Years later, the township protest theatre movement was carried forward by playwrights such as Matsemela Manaka and Mbongeni Ngema who, along with many others, saw their work on the stages of the Market Theatre once it opened in 1976.

The real challenge for this newest of South Africa’s theatres is when its management confronts the same questions now faced by Murray, the Goodman Gallery and the attendees at the University of Johannesburg’s “Art in the Creative Economy” conference. Will this Soweto Theatre be true to the township’s reputation and history as a cauldron of artistic expression in favour of greater artistic freedom – even if this ends up in stark opposition to the regime of the day? Will this new theatre be able to find an audience and seek out funding to avoid being a white elephant – as its managers struggle to find its backers and sponsors?

And finally, will it encourage new, exciting works that energise and enlighten its audiences – and then those beyond Soweto – on the conditions in which its residents live, and have come from – as well as their aspirations for the future?

Or will it suffer the fate of other once-vibrant cultural institutions that have sunk into a kind of sad, creative torpor in recent years? Friday night at least was a time for hope and anticipation.

© The Daily Maverick

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